"Is that it there? Is that it there?"
"What I can't see anything"
"Right there! Oh. No, it's gone around the corner now. Look now! Look how long it is!"
"I still can't see anything"
"You're not looking fast enough! Are you even looking? Are you excited?"
This is often the way we travel. Me, filled with excitement and anticipation. Dan, holding judgement until we get there. Being unemployed means I do the bulk of our planning for trips these days, so while I've been looking at pictures of The Great Wall for two months, maybe raising my expectations too high, my husband's primary interest is the Beijing (Peking) Duck leftovers we've brought along as part of our picnic.
"Oh look, mountains!"
"That's what I was just... were you even looking before?!"
A sign points to Mutianyu, our original destination for the day but we turn the other way.
"Why not go somewhere less crowded? For just 100 yuan more the driver will take you to a part of the wall where you just pay the farmer 5 yuan to go through his property. At Mutianyu you'll spend over 100 for each of you to take the chairlift and toboggan. Unless you're really into the toboggan?" our air bnb host had advised us. "You'll have to leave early, though like 7:30".
"That's fine, let's do that"
We were almost two and a half hours outside of Beijing when the driver pulled over. We got out of the car and turned around.
Dan was the first to start taking pictures.
We crossed the bridge over the dam and turned through a small gate where a man was standing with a sign that just said "5 Yuan," roughly 80 US cents and hurry after our driver who has gotten ahead while we've been snapping away. He leads us past five chicken and two dogs. I suspect our air bnb host might have a looser definition of farmer than we do.
"Ok, this way," he points up a narrow dirt path. "I go back to the car, see you later".
We start climbing up and I realize that I have, stupidly, forgotten my inhaler when switching things from my purse to our picnic tote.
"We'll just go slowly, ok?" Dan says.
The path is now hugging the wall and we climb around a rusted stairwell that's completely fallen over, hoping there's another way up ahead of us. We climb over some rocks and around a tower and on the other side a metal ladder is hanging from the side for us to carefully scramble up. We enter in to a guard tower full of trash.
"Ugh, let's get out of this trash room" but Dan is already staring out of the opening across the reservoir and road to the other section of the wall.
"Hold on, I'm looking!"
Up on the wall, away from the dust and chicken feathers of the path, my lungs felt clear and like they'd never even heard of asthma. We lucked out with temperatures in the seventies and a sky that could not have been more blue.
"How far do we go?"
"I don't know. How far do you want to go? Let's go to the next rise and have some snacks"
We scramble up and take a seat on some stairs, opening our bag of snacks.
"NOW are you excited that we're on The Great Wall of China?"
"Are we even here? Is this real? I don't even understand. I have a lot of questions. This is when I want the audio tour. When was it built? Which side is Mongolia? Did it work?"
"It was actually built in many different sections over time. Do you want me to read to you about it from the book?"
"No, I'll ask Siri later"
But we take a moment to consult a map on our phones and figure out which side was Mongolia.
There is one small group on the section of the wall on the other side of the road, but aside from that, we have as far as we can see to ourselves. We pack up our snacks and continue on, pausing every few minutes to take pictures, it seems like every ten steps our view completely changes and becomes better than the last.
"This is amazing. I was pretty into the chairlift idea but I'm so glad we did this"
We continue climbing up and down. Some parts of the wall are so steep and smooth I regret my choice of chucks and use my hands against the wall to steady me. We pass through two more guard towers, each one slightly less trash filled than the last before reaching a place where a third should have been but instead it's gone and it seems like we've got our own pavilion on top of the world.
"Honey! HONEY! Look, I'm doing cartwheels on THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA!"
I get more excited and do a round-off.
"Don't do that! You'll sprain your ankle on the Great Wall of China!"
"Oh look at these stairs! Is this a backdoor to the wall?" my husband say while disappearing down what just looks like a hole in the corner.
I follow after. They do seem to go to a back "door" to the wall but it just leads to the brambles and trees below the wall and we climb back up hearing voices approach us. A French couple appears and greets us and speeds up on their way. We decide to sit for a minute so we can let them get enough ahead to feel like we have the wall to ourselves again. I see them up ahead, stopping to take pictures and the continuing at their fast pace. We have somehow been on the wall for two hours but it seems like we just got there. We hike partially up the next rise to find a spot in the shade and eat our lunch. Any day where you get to eat leftovers of duck, cauliflower and jujubees is good day in my book. While we're eating the French couple must have finished their picture taking and goes power walking back past us with a quick head nod.
"Why are they in such a hurry? Are we just, like, not being cool enough about The Great Wall of China? Are we just supposed to take a couple of pictures say we were there and move on?"
"I don't know. This is awesome. Should we keep going? How far should we go?"
"Remember we have to walk back everything we've walked so far. Let's go there and see how we feel?"
I point to a rise between the watchtower in front of and the next one, which is the farthest watchtower we can see and up a set of incredibly daunting stairs. Beyond the farthest watchtower the wall takes a steep drop back down and is truly wild, crumbling and filled with trees.
"I wish we were better prepared for actual hiking. Do you think you can do tours where it's just camping out on sections of the wild wall? I think that's my dream if we come back to Beijing, just a wild wall tour instead of the city"
We climb through the next watchtower and scramble up some stair so steep I use my hands to pull me up at parts and up a slope so steep, I end up crab crawling part of the way down on our way back. We get to yet another rise where the view tops the last view that I thought could never be topped and I wonder how long we'd have to spend up here before this got old. We're on the wall almost fiver hours by the time we get back to our car, and I never do find out.